October 20, 2009
For the next two weeks I’ll be knee-deep in The Samuel Fuller Collection, a seven-disc set being released on October 27th by Sony Pictures, in association with Martin Scorsese’s heroic film preservation organization, The Film Foundation. It’s a doggedly auteurist production that traces the contours of Fuller’s entire career, presenting five of his writing gigs (It Happened in Hollywood (1937), Adventure in Sahara (1938), Power of the Press (1943), Shockproof (1949) and Scandal Sheet 1952)) along with two lesser-known directorial efforts (The Crimson Kimono (1959) and Underworld, U.S.A. (1961)). In this marketplace it’s downright courageous to release these later subterranean slices of Fuller, and just about saintly to include some of his early writing jobs. As the juvenilia of other great artists like Picasso are studied in the context of his life’s work, so should the early scribbling of this brusquely unique American. Without an institution like the Library of America to preserve and present a director’s work in the proper context (instead of being thrown to the wind in various star-themed sets), it’s up to studios to flog their geniuses, and their priorities clearly lie elsewhere. So much of the credit to this release must lie with Scorsese and his Film Foundation, who also released the essential Budd Boetticher Collection last year, and produced the Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics set due November 3rd. In convincing Sony to release these films in cleaned-up masters, he’s keeping the spirit of serious film appreciation alive.
The earliest film in the set is a sprightly little comedy spiced with melancholy, It Happened in Hollywood(1937). It was Fuller’s second credit in Hollywood, after he wrote the scenario for Hats Off (1937), an elaborate bit of slapstick he conceived for Boris Petroff, who directed Mae West’s variety shows on Broadway. In his autobiography, A Third Face, he says about Hats Off that, “the finished film had just about nothing to do with my original story. Petroff fashioned a movie that made people forget about their problems. I’d wanted to expose man’s foolish belligerency.” That characteristic, foolish belligerency, is what pops up again and again in these early screenplays, regardless of the damage done to his scripts by the studios. Each film in the set, to varying degrees, contain a vague anti-authoritarian streak, whether the conservative mulishness of Richard Dix in It Happened in Hollywood or the violent resentment of Paul Kelly in Adventure in Sahara. But let’s start with the former, which is one of the minor delights of the set.
Directed with studied reserve by Harry Lachman, it’s a self-reflexive bit of Hollywood fantasy. He wrings a couple of surprising effects out of the material. The first is the opening, which shows Dix rescuing Gloria Gay (a luminous Fay Wray) on his noble horse Toby. It’s unclear that this is a film-within-a-film until the laughter and cheering of kids fill the audio track. Then the camera slowly pulls back from the screen and into the children’s hospital where Bart is holding court to an enraptured crowd. This clever shot establishes the construction of Bart’s image, how it is shaped by the frame and his fans outside of it. He is not a free man.
Based on the career of Tom Mix, it follows Tim Bart (Richard Dix, drawling as if his tongue were bathed in molasses), a hugely popular silent Western star who flops upon the transition to sound. With his ranch about to be sold, the only thing rooting him to Hollywood is the adoration of his sole remaining fan, an infirm boy who calls himself Billy the Kid. In a wild attempt to make Billy’s wish come true and meet all of his silver screen heroes, Bart gathers a menagerie of celebrity stand-ins and arranges a faux star-studded bash, a clever bit of burlesque celebrating Hollywood’s unseen working class. The affected hauteur of the Marlene Dietrich impersonator while rejecting a morose fake-Clark Gable is particularly amusing.
Lachman achieves a surreal carnival effect at the stand-in party, especially on a slow tracking shot down the dinner table, as W.C Fields, Charlie Chaplin, and Victor McLaglen impersonators cavort and mug as if they were in an old vaudeville routine. Fuller’s touch is all over this film, especially in its skepticism towards the idea of heroism and the idealizations that surround it (Fuller’s original title was Once a Hero). Tim Bart’s heroism is a clear construct, a virtue built by the studios and disposed of when technological advances make other stories more appealing. His aura is built by the production machine, and just as easily destroyed. There’s a devastating montage of all of Bart’s paraphernalia getting incinerated, cardboard cut-outs and sheriff badges going up in flames. That it was based on the story of Tom Mix gives the whole enterprise a feel of a low-budget valediction, and Bart’s improbable resurrection as a star at the end can be forgiven as a kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy for that faded star. Fuller is credited as screenwriter on the film along with Ethel Hill and Harvey Fergusson.
Adventure in Sahara is an altogether different story, a dire little tale of mutiny in the French Foreign Legion. C. Henry Gordon plays a sadistic commander who drills his soldiers to death. Jim Wilson (Paul Kelly) hears of his brother’s death at this fascist’s hands, and enlists to seek revenge. He succeeds in leading a mutiny, kicking the officers out into the desert. But Gordon returns, and someone will have to pay… The film was directed rather anonymously by D. Ross Lederman, and the script was written by Maxwell Shane, as Fuller receives only a story credit. Aside from Wilson’s anti-fascist, anti-authoritarian bent, very little of Fuller’s personality shines through. The film twists itself in knots trying to show respect for military protocol as well as individual freedoms, and it turns into ideological mush. Gordon gives a deliciously hammy performance however, answering all questions with a beady eye and a crick in his neck. Fuller’s anecdote about his inspiration for the story is more entertaining than the movie itself:
He [Sam Briskin, head of Columbia] asked me if I could write an adventure movie for the studio. He may as well have been asking me if I could bake a seven-layer cake…. I took out a cigar and slowly prepared to light it, buying a few moments to figure out a way out of this mess. Briskin never took his beady eyes off me. I lit the cigar, blew the smoke out of my mouth, and proudly announced, “William Bligh meets Victor Hugo!” ‘Who the hell are they?’ snarled Briskin.
While working on his novel, The Dark Page, Fuller was knocking out scripts on the side to make a living. One of these was 1943’s Power of the Press, directed by Lew Landers, original story by Fuller, screenplay by Robert Hardy Andrews. This film stands as a curious precursor to his ode to journalism, Park Row(he was previously a crime reporter for the New York Evening Graphic) This film, mediated by Landers and Andrews, replaces his snarling wit with a series of moralistic speeches about the perils of isolationism. It is about a publishing magnate, John Cleveland Carter, who has a late change in heart about his yellow journalism practices, which threatens the domain of an oily fifth-columnist, Rankin. Gangland killings ensue, and after the dust settles, it’s a mild-mannered power battle between Rankin and Guy Kibbee, who plays a Horace Greeley worshipping small-town editor with whom Carter endowed his paper.
There are an endless number of comparisons to Rankin and his goons with Nazis. They run the place “like the Gestapo”, Rankin’s assistant is “a Himmler” and so on. The flavorful performances, Lee Tracy’s soulless managing editor first and foremost, prettify the propaganda machinery, but it eventually grinds to a halt with a series of static monologues about free speech and the dangers of isolationism. Fuller’s politics were probably similar at the time, but he would have never staged them so slowly or humorlessly. The only character with a whiff of Fuller’s life force is Eddie (Gloria Dickson), Carter’s secretary and the brains behind Kibbee’s goal to clean up the New York Gazette. She bulldozes through the publisher without a thought to her status or role, simply following her impulse. Gloria is a little stiff as a performer, but if you squint hard enough, you can see the outlines of Barbara Stanwyck in Forty Guns.
Next week I’ll (hopefully) have an interview with Christa Fuller, Sam’s wife, as well as a discussion of the remaining titles in the set.